How to prepare for a Hackathon

It's this time of the year again - we say goodbye to the summer as temperatures and leaves are quickly falling down, we get the blankets out, we turn the heating on again, our heads are filled with Halloween and end of year celebrations thoughts....

Well at least that might be the case for you - as far as I'm concerned, right now I can only think about Hack Manchester!

Every year for the past five years, at around the same time - last week end of October - a bunch of lovely people bring to us our favorite hackathon.

A hackawhat?!

A hackathon is a coding competition where developers, designers, testers... anyone really, gather together in teams of up to 4.
Each of these teams take on one (or more) challenges offered by the sponsors of the event, and spend 25 hours straight coding, working on a solution to the challenge(s) they're taking on, in an attempt to try and win some prizes.

It generally comes with a few rules, the most important one being - absolutely no writing code for the competition before it actually kicks off.
However, that doesn't mean that if you're planning on attending one, you shouldn't prepare. All the opposite actually - you should prepare, accordingly to what your goal is.
That being said, no matter what that goal is, there are a few simple things you can do to ensure the event goes smoothly, and that you won't be missing anything crucial on the day.
Please note that these are more or less specific to Hack Manchester - they might not apply to any other hackathon.

Think about the event, before the event.

If you have a team already built before heading to the event - coordinate with your team mates, decide on whether you want to attend a challenge, and if yes, which one. Then, start thinking about a concrete idea - what to build. Is it going to be a mobile app, a website, a desktop app... ? What is it gonna do? What should you start with, what would be the milestones... ? It doesn't have to be very precise or time boxed. All that matters is that you outline a plan so there's no down time during the hack, because if you have any, the team's motivation is going to plummet quickly...

Try to also think about the technologies you and your team are going to use. Whether it's going to be a new technology to experiment and discover, something you're comfortable with, or the best option for what you want to build.

If you're keen on doing CI during the hack, have a specific workflow - you're probably going to use cloud based solutions for that. Make sure you configure the accesses early, that everyone in the team can use and understands how to use. Again, a practice run doesn't hurt.

Software

When you have decided which technologies you'll work with, the next step is to ensure that the laptops you're bringing to the event have what you need to start coding when the competition kicks off. You absolutely don't want to spend X hours figuring out why your IDE isn't working, or downloading that latest SDK you need...
Do some practice runs ahead of the big day to make sure everything works fine and that you won't be missing anything.

Hack Manchester requires you to submit a video at the end of the competition to show your hack. Make sure that you have at least 1 (+1 backup ) machine able to record your screen and voice, having a software and some practice in very basic video editing is a big plus.

Extras

In general, the event's organisers will provide everything you need on the day, including the Wi-Fi. However, it's possible that this Wi-Fi won't be entirely reliable, so you might want to have a back up option - your phone's 3G or 4G as hot spot will do great. Make sure you have 100% battery and a phone charger with you!

In my personal experience, I recommend bringing a monitor if you can. Your back will thank you, you don't want to spend 25 hours looking down at a laptop.

Good to note that food is generally provided (it is for Hack Manchester) - however it's not the most healthy food in the world. You might want to think about that, based on how your body works.
Some people sleep during the event, some people don't. It's all up to you - but don't push it. A lot of the people I know do sleep a few hours during the event and still do really well, even with less hours of "work" than people who haven't slept at all.
It's all about knowing yourself and your limits!

In summary:

The more you plan and decide on ahead of the event, the better. That being said - make sure everyone on your team has the same goals, objectives, and mindset for the event. The most important thing is to have fun! Enjoy the event, take it as an opportunity to learn, meet new people, and do what we all love doing (talking about coding here, obviously) in a very friendly environment.

Laurent Humbert's Picture

Laurent Humbert

Professional Software Developer. Also french guy lost in Manchester, mostly doing back end stuff and playing games.
@LaurentHbt